Reputation dynamics: bad decisions stick and for longer

Time passes. Leaders change. Reputations do not.

Is Syracuse only about snow? What about SU basketball and lacrosse and the Everson?

Is New York City only Wall Street, 9/11 and the Big Apple? What about fashion and advertising … and Brooklyn?

Is Harvard mostly about American presidents and Nobel Prizes? What about Jeremy Lin and the Harvard basketball team making the NCAAs, and Facebook?

Is Dartmouth College all about Animal House, or is President Jim Kim transforming it into a leader in health care innovation; and is it the premier undergraduate college in America?

Trouble is, when trouble strikes, people go back to what they know. Bad reputations stick. They cling like leeches. What year did John “Bluto” Blutarsky graduate from Dartmouth?

Ask Buffalo about snow and chicken wings. Ask Penn State about sex scandals. Ask the Washington Post about Watergate. Ask Monical Lewinsky about President Clinton, and vice versa.

I know a bit about fraternity hazing — at Dartmouth. I’m not suggesting it was better in the bad old days, or that the current bad days are OK. They’re not. At their best, fraternities produce friends for life, as did mine. At their worst, they allow 21-year-olds who think they know everything to do incredibly stupid and unsafe things that sometimes lead to injury and death. I’ve been there.

Dartmouth hired a new communications director, Roderic Olvera Young, a few months ago and he’s a pro. If you read about the proactive efforts the College is making in response to this hazing brouhaha, they’re smart and no-nonsense.

“Clearly we put our resources where our mouth is,” a College spokeswoman said. “This idea that we have somehow thrown up our hands, said there’s nothing we can do about hazing or other high-risk behavior going on on college campuses is a complete mischaracterization.”

But today’s pros are up against 34 years of Animal House celebrations and reputation building. It’s so hard to shake; so clingy. Did you know that in 2001, the United States Library of Congress deemed Animal House “culturally significant” and selected it for preservation in the National Film Registry? See what crisis managers are up against?

That also reinforces why keeping your reputation clean is so crucial. One slip and decades of glory crumble to dust in moments.

Examples? Penn State football coach Joe Paterno, an angel for 60 years, demonized in two weeks. Tiger Woods. Olympic sprinter and drug user Marion Jones. Italian murder suspect Amanda Knox. NFL football coach Gregg Williams, good coach till he was a head hunter. Casey Anthony. Gov. Eliot Spitzer. Congressman Anthony Weiner.

A clear, positive reputation delivers untold value. Protect it at all costs.


About steveoncrisis

The content is about crisis management and mismanagement in a digital age. It comes from Steve Bell, who spent 30 years as a journalist for the Associated Press and as managing editor and editorial page editor at The Buffalo News. He is now Partner/Director of Public Affairs at Eric Mower and Associates, one of the nation's largest independent advertising, integrated marketing and public relations agency with six offices in the Northeast and Southeast.
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